Court to consider crime-lab reports without analysts

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From combined dispatches

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether prosecutors can use crime-lab reports as evidence without having the forensic analyst who prepared them testify at a trial.

The reliability of crime labs has been questioned in several states and at the federal level in recent years.

State and federal courts have come to different conclusions about whether recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the constitutional right of a defendant to confront his accusers extend to lab reports that are used in many drug cases and other cases.

The case the justices accepted, and will consider in the fall, comes from Massachusetts. Luis Melendez-Diaz was convicted of trafficking in cocaine partly on the basis of a crime-lab analysis that confirmed that cocaine was in plastic bags found in the car in which Melendez-Diaz was riding.

Rather than accept the report, however, Melendez-Diaz asserted that he should be allowed to question the person who prepared it about testing methods, how the evidence was preserved and a host of other issues.

A brief supporting the defendant points out “systemic problems with unreliable scientific data” in lab analyses, including problems in the Massachusetts state lab.

The justices declined a separate case from Iowa that raised a similar question about the use of videotaped interviews in child sex abuse cases.

That decision, announced without comment, leaves in place an Iowa Supreme Court ruling that bars prosecutors from using the interview of Jetseta Gage of Cedar Rapids against her accused molester.

In other action yesterday, the court:

• Agreed to consider reinstating the murder conviction of the driver in a gang-related drive-by shooting that horrified Seattle in 1994.

The court will hear arguments in the fall in the case of Cesar Sarausad II. He was convicted for his role as the driver in the shooting in which Melissa Fernandes, 16, was killed outside a Seattle high school on March 23, 1994. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the conviction because of faulty jury instructions.

• Agreed to decide a case about the drawing of legislative boundaries that could affect the ability of minorities to elect their candidates of choice.

The case will be argued in the fall and will be decided well in advance of the redrawing of political districts that will follow the 2010 census.

The dispute from North Carolina involves state legislative districts in which black voters make up less than 50 percent of the population, but still are numerous enough to elect a black candidate.

The issue is whether such districts are protected by a provision of the federal Voting Rights Act. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the landmark civil rights law does not apply to districts where a minority accounts for less than half the population.

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